Today's guest post comes from one of my favorite 32'ers. He was one of the earliest members of the community and immediately led by example through contributing, assisting, and sharing his knowledge with the network. Additionally, his work ethic and dedication to his craft is nothing short of inspiring. Oh, and he's talented as hell.
Edwin Adrian Nieves is a film director from Tarrytown, New York. He freelances in film and video production within the New York metropolitan area, while keeping the wheels rolling on his own productions and maintaining A-BitterSweet-Life, a space focusing on cinema and filmmaking.
Edwin is currently in post-production with The Gift. For more information on the short film, visit eanieves.webs.com/the-gift.
I thank Edwin for taking the time to share his passion for filmmaking with the community. This is a tremendous post. One I've read multiple times. Gets me fired up.
The more sand that has escaped from the hourglass of our life, the clearer we should see through it. – Jean-Paul Sartre
A long time ago in a land far, far away, I was a teenager watching François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim. The film struck a chord with me. It follows the story of two young men, one French and the other Austrian, who meet in Paris before World War I. Lifelong friends, they eventually fall in love with the same woman. What ensues is a tragic story that, as Roger Ebert writes, “feels fresh today and felt audacious at the time.”
The way the film was told intrigued me. At this time my interest in cinema was growing. Whether on my own, with friends, or my family—though slowly the funny idea of his type of film came to exist—I was watching a wide variety of films. Much time was spent in the foreign and art house sections of the local video rental place, and more time was spent talking about films with friends working there.
I can recall the deep impact films like Kim Ki-duk’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring and Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie had on me. Moreover, in my second year of high school I chose to pursue French as my language requirement to better understand some of my favorite films. One of those films was Jules et Jim, and two thoughts stemmed from that experience.
First, regardless of plot, a filmmaker’s approach to storytelling is the heart of what makes a film engaging.
Second, it would be awesome to make films.
Years later, after studying International Political Economy and French Language and Literature as an undergraduate and going on to graduate studies in French Literature, I find myself fulfilling that early, subtly dismissed thought.
A film from 1967 opened my mind to the possibilities that the form holds, and with the advancement of technology, those possibilities keep multiplying and becoming more accessible. Needless to say, that advancement of technology has also opened the door to a new wave of filmmakers—in a way, it has led to the democratization of filmmaking. However, certain things never change, and one of those things is best encompassed through the question, “What makes a good film?”
I believe that a filmmaker’s style is the foundation of a good film. Andrei Tarkovsky encompassed this when he said, “In our profession, everything depends on the extent of how interesting you make your narration.” A good story is essential, but the truth of it is that stories take on infinite forms. At the heart of it, a story is a reflection of human experience. Thus, for film, it is how this reflection of human experience is expressed that is important. A director provides a visual-audio landscape upon which the viewer witnesses a story.
This means that the intentions of the filmmaker must be felt throughout the film. Necessity then overtakes tastes and preferences.
With this in mind, we ask, “How does one become a filmmaker?” Breaking into the industry comes second to the very essential step of learning to express oneself through film. The dream of directing films that will reach the masses is ideal. As with most things, the ideal manifests itself into reality through one course of action: work.
In the novella, The Lifted Veil, George Eliot writes, “There is no short cut, no patent tram-road, to wisdom: after all the centuries of invention, the soul’s path lies through the thorny wilderness which must be still trodden in solitude, with bleeding feet, with sobs for help, as it was trodden by them of old time.” We may suggest that the road to becoming a filmmaker is one of gathering filmmaking wisdom.
You can learn much by “standing on the shoulders of giants.” Immerse yourself in the filmographies of your favorite filmmakers. Read the screenplays to their works, study the narratives of their films. Furthermore, expand your horizons by absorbing films that you would otherwise pass by. This will nourish your grasp of film as an art and craft, and it will also give you a greater understanding of your audience, which extends well beyond national boundaries.
Do this while keeping in mind the words of Eliot. Her words indicate that the key to wisdom comes from within. For a filmmaker, this means the key to becoming a filmmaker is being a filmmaker. A filmmaker creates films, and if there is truth in filmmaking as an art form, there is equal truth in filmmaking as an art form that possesses non-artistic attributes as well.
Thus, Stanley Kubrick encompasses the full spectrum of filmmaking when he says: “The best education in film is to make one. I would advise any neophyte director to try to make a film by himself. A three-minute short will teach him a lot. I know that all the things I did at the beginning were, in microcosm, the things I’m doing now as a director and producer. There are a lot of noncreative aspects to filmmaking which have to be overcome, and you will experience them all when you make even the simplest film: business, organization, taxes, etc., etc. It is rare to be able to have an uncluttered, artistic environment when you make a film, and being able to accept this is essential.”
Going through the stages in the making of a film will teach you the most about what it takes to become a filmmaker. The process is complex, demanding, and asks much of yourself as both a film director and an individual. You will struggle, and you will have to make sacrifices, but it is only by being immersed in the work that a revelation will be made: you are a filmmaker.
The most heartrending part of it will be the amount of time that it takes for you to “succeed.” There is an idea that it takes, more or less, ten years to make it. Ten years is a good number.
Orson Welles directed three short films before making his debut feature film, the celebrated Citizen Kane. The first short film was The Hearts of Age, made in 1934; the second was Too Much Johnson, made in 1938; and the third was The Green Goddess, made in 1939. Citizen Kane was made in 1941. It was after seven years of work that Orson Welles found himself to be opening the doors into the film industry.
Thirty-six years later, David Lynch released his first feature film, Eraserhead. It took him six years to make the film. Three years later he was approached to direct The Elephant Man.
Most great things take time. On this journey in filmmaking, remember that and especially highlight it when times are filled with doubt. Further, an important thing to stress during this time is that by being on the path you are already succeeding.
Now let us return to that question, “How does one become a filmmaker?”
Lose yourself in the history of cinema.
Engage yourself in filmmaking.
Pursue the vast knowledge that is available to you.
We live in age in which information is at your disposal. I can recall reading everything on Girish Shambu’s blog and absorbing the screenwriting insights provided by Mystery Man when I began to chase the dream. A lot of my free time was spent on these sites and more. In addition to these individuals, publications and online resources such as Filmmaker Magazine, IndieWire, and FilmmakerIQ are musts, and standing amongst these are superb sites like Mentorless and Cinephilia & Beyond.
Another great source for filmmaking allows us to fulfill both the study and the experience of making a film. Stage32 is a godsend, coming at a promising time for filmmakers from all parts of the world. The ability to connect with directors, producers, actors, writers, cinematographers, editors, and more through this network that facilitates interaction and the exchange of filmmaking wisdom at a global level makes today a unique time for filmmakers.
If the advancement of technology has led to the democratization of filmmaking, then Stage32 is a lighthouse for all us on this journey in film history.
Finally, by engrossing yourself in these sites, in the works of other filmmakers, and in the experience of making a film, something special will certainly emerge: your filmmaker’s style.
As Orson Welles said, Create your own visual style. Let it be unique for yourself and yet identifiable for others.
Be true to the ideas, and let them talk to you, and worry about every little frame that you’re making, and if you don’t have the money, you can find another way to get that exact same thing, so you don’t have to compromise in that way, for the final thing. You can find a way. – David Lynch
PS: Over the years, I have been collecting a journal of notes on filmmaking, much in the same vein as Robert Bresson’s Notes on Cinematograph. Emulating an admired filmmaker has been a great exercise in understanding the complexities behind filmmaking, and I recommend others to do the same, if not for the exercise, then to see your development as a filmmaker.
Here are some of those notes:
Life is timed by the things you do and the things you don’t do. Your dreams adhere to the choices you make.
The question is not What is the story but How, that is How do I express it.
The feel of the experience is the important thing, not the ability to verbalize or analyze it. (SK)
Le mot juste: for Gustave Flaubert, each word must be “the right word,” the precise word to convey your idea. In film, each element must be “the right element” or “the necessary element” to convey your idea.
Necessity = Intent
Intent: the life within the frame should reflect an intention.
If you’re an artist, then you will make art. (CD)
If you’re a filmmaker, then you will make films.
Be yourself. Find your style, your way; find the border and cross it, or else you may be lost or, even worse, boring. Don’t forget what you really want to say. There is no recipe. The recipe is you. (BT)
If you don’t have money, then you have time.
Let your limitations direct you. This way they become less like restrictions and more like guidelines. Your ideas, the feelings behind them, will always be there if you approach your obstacles with open arms. Thus, create more by limiting. Time is finite but infinite possibilities rise from it.
A canvas is never empty. (RR)
The film is always there to be discovered.
Keep faith in the fruit by focusing on the act, use your abilities to bring the invisible to light, and most importantly, forget perfection. The perfect arises on its own.
Platonic ideals: there is the idea of a chair and then the chair made real, which can take many forms. The same applies to your film.
The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in seeing with new eyes. (MP)
It’s much better for a film to be clumsy but sincere than technically slick but empty. (RC)
Gestures say more than words.
Images and sounds say more than words.
Directing actors: there is no “right” way. Communication is the key, and each actor is a unique door.
Edit like a sculptor.
The story of a film evolves in three stages: the script, the shooting, and the cut.
Spread insight to others and forget about where the credit goes—knowledge belongs to all.
The painting is complete when it has effaced the idea. (GB)
A balance between shedding light on the story and keeping it in mystery allows the audience to engage in the film, to create alongside the director, therefore, enriching the relationship between the viewer and film, leading to a deeper experience.
Filmmakers have the responsibility of making everyone on a film a better craftsman. Every one should leave the production knowing more about their craft and desiring to learn further.
Read, learn, absorb, and, most importantly, do—experience is the greatest teacher.
*SK = Stanley Kubrick; CD = Christopher Doyle; BT = Béla Tarr; RR = Robert Rauschenberg; MP = Marcel Proust; RC = Raoul Coutard; GB = Georges Braque
To view more of Edwin's work, be sure to check out his reel on his Stage 32 profile.
Edwin is available for questions and remarks in the Comments section below.